Music is a beautiful thing, and as we all know, it’s got an amazing power to make us feel good. It can lift your mood if you’re having a bad day, and some studies have even shown that regular music listening can improve mental health.
However, this is only some music. While most artists are nice people who wish their fans the best, there are others out there with worse intentions. There exist, outside of the mainstream, musicians who do their work for the exact opposite purpose. These artists want to upset you. They want to ruin your day. I’m here to talk about feel-bad music and specifically a few of its most significant creators.
I would like to preface this by saying that, for the record, I do not recommend any of this. None of it is even remotely enjoyable. But I am interested in covering it because it is fascinating and raises some important questions about the nature of beauty in music.
Masami Akita, known professionally as Merzbow, is one of the most well-known purveyors of awful noise crime. His music is, if nothing else, unique. And loud. so harshly, painfully loud. Merzbow’s definitive record, Pulse Demon (1996), consists almost entirely of oscillating white noise shrieks, devoid of any typical melody or rhythm. It is nearly impossible to listen to it for more than ten seconds at a time. Pitchfork gave it an 8.7/10.
Boards of Canada
Boards of Canada is an electronic music duo from Scotland. Taking a much less confrontational approach than the other acts on this list, they land here primarily for their album, Geogaddi (2002). Geogaddi is a long, strange, winding instrumental record that explores themes of nostalgia and memory. At first glance, it seems somewhat harmless. But as it goes on, the record becomes increasingly discordant and unsettling. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes it so affecting, but I know that it makes me feel deeply uneasy. Upon release, it won widespread critical acclaim, with NME awarding it the title of “electronic album of the year."
California’s Xiu Xiu began their career making slow, droning art rock. However, as time went on, they began to venture slowly but surely into darker territory. With Girl with Basket of Fruit (2019), they created a painfully anxiety-inducing record that pushes the limits of what listeners are willing to put up with. However, like several of the other entries on this list, it received mostly positive reviews from critics.
Okay, last one. If you don’t want to listen to this (and why would you?), just imagine what a band called “Throbbing Gristle” might sound like, and you’ll be about halfway there. Formed in the mid-1970s, they were pioneers in experimental music and have been credited as the inventors of the industrial genre. The material they made was incredibly upsetting, but despite this, the band managed to become fairly mainstream within alternative circles and have often been cited as influences by later noise artists. The song “Beachy Head” is a good example of their sound—dark, unsettling, and ominous.
This is really just scratching the surface of feel-bad music. There are many (shockingly many) other artists who have devoted their careers to making noise that is harsh and viscerally upsetting to the listener. I've only mentioned a few that stood out to me.
Now, do I like this kind of music? No. Would I listen to it regularly? Absolutely not. I'd take Steve Lacy or Beach House in a heartbeat. But I'm bringing it up because I feel it prompts an interesting discussion about what exactly makes music valuable.
I'm sure that we all have sad songs that mean a lot to us. Music that deals with sadness can be incredibly therapeutic because it allows us to confront our negative emotions, explore them, and make sense of them. And when a song perfectly captures these emotions, it's really beautiful. But if sadness is an appropriate subject for artists to traverse in their music, why shouldn't fear and anxiety be as well?